AN ANCIENT pilgrims' walk, which once stretched down the Ayrshire coast to where St Ninian founded Scotland's first Christian mission, could re-open for the first time since it was forcibly closed more than 300 years ago.

Following a feasibility study European funding is being sought for a 75-mile signposted trail starting from Largs and Kilbirnie and ending at Candida Casa (Shining House), the name given to the church in Whithorn founded by Scotland’s first saint.

If funding is granted, the route will be called St Ninian’s Way, and will progress through Beith, Dalry, Troon, Alloway, Crossraguel, Girvan, Barrhill, Ballantrae and onwards to Galloway.

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Highlights will include Dundonald Castle, Crossraguel Abbey at Maybole and Glenluce Abbey.

It is hoped the route – the study for which was commissioned by the Maybole Historical Society – could be extended to include Paisley, whose abbey, founded by the monks of Cluny in 1163, once marked the beginning of St Ninian’s Way.

If the project were to go ahead it could attract the same popularity enjoyed by Iona, where in 563 Saint Columba founded a monastery and began his mission to the northern Picts.

It could also help revive Scotland’s ancient tradition of religious pilgrim walks, which were banned as part of the Protestant Reformation in the mid-16th century.

James Brown, who has produced the feasibility study, said: “I believe the trail would be of international significance. The Scandinavians used to come on pilgrimage to Whithorn, along with the Irish, English and others from mainland Europe.

“It is a trail which would allow people to go on a spiritual journey into self, people looking for a challenge and an experience.”

Janet Butterworth, of the Whithorn Trust, said: “In the medieval period, the trails were about a connection to God. We know from historical records that there were pilgrims coming from all over Europe to Whithorn. It was one of the main pilgrimage centres in the sixth and seventh centuries right the way through to the Reformation.”

Pilgrim walks are enjoying renewed popularity across Europe, according to Ian Bradley, author of Pilgrimage – a spiritual and cultural journey. He said: “While figures for churchgoing continue to fall, the number of those making pilgrimages is steadily rising.”

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: “That the St Ninian route might be re-opened is a fascinating reminder that even in a very secular society our spiritual dimension isn’t lost and in many ways is becoming even more interesting to people.”